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Aging & Society

Judge Lois Murphy: A Champion for Elder Justice

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While growing up on Long Island, Lois Murphy remembers her grandfather, a New York City municipal lawyer, talking about his responsibility for protecting the City’s vast system of water reservoirs.

He took his duties seriously, and she was inspired to a career in law and public service. Years later, when her mother developed dementia and the whole family – an ailing father and four children – had to rally to cope, Murphy, now 55, learned first-hand that there are “older adults who can’t always advocate for themselves.”

In 2009, Murphy found her calling. 

Elected a judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Montgomery County (adjacent to Philadelphia), she was assigned to the Orphans Court Division, which hears cases involving wills, estates, adoptions, and guardianships.  No area was growing faster than the last, she said, and none more in need of thoughtful judicial attention. 

Guardianship, the judge says, is a “last resort” for seniors in need of legal protection when they become mentally or physically incapacitated – no longer able to make sound medical, financial, or lifestyle decisions for themselves.  Often, a spouse or other loved one, armed with a power-of-attorney, can step in to help.  But when that solution isn’t feasible, the court can appoint a family member, friend, or professional to take responsibility for the individual’s care.

Judge Murphy weighs such decisions carefully. 

“It’s a profound deprivation of autonomy and liberty for a court to decide where someone lives or how their money will be spent,” she says.  “Ideally, the goal would be to give someone that authority in advance.  People are reluctant to do so because they don’t think they’re going to need it, but the reality is that almost all of us are going to need it at some point.”

In Montgomery County (population: 850,000), there are about 1,500 individuals in guardianships.  Across the US, the National Center for State Courts estimates there are 1.5 million active pending adult guardianship cases. Experts predict that number will only grow, a fact that has contributed to a national movement to make guardianship laws and practices more uniform and up-to-date. 

As chair of the Guardianship Committee of the state’s Advisory Council on Elder Justice in the Courts, she’s pushing to tighten the state’s laws, improve education and training for guardians, and promote best practices among judges.  She’s also leading the charge to combat abuse cases.

“Older adults can become prey to scammers,” Judge Murphy says.  “They’re less wary, less inhibited, and lonesome.  When someone gets identified, they can get on a hot list that actually gets shared among criminals.”  

One of the most important steps people can take to protect themselves, she says, is to plan ahead with written directives for medical and financial decision-making. She shared a few recommendations to help families start the conversation:  

  • Recognize that we’re all likely to need help as we age. That may take different forms for different people, but it’s better to be prepared for any eventuality than to navigate these decisions in a crisis.
  • Identify one person or more whom you would trust to represent your best interests, and make sure they understand your needs and preferences when it comes to your care.
  • Working with an attorney, prepare powers-of-attorney for those individuals to be used when necessary in medical or financial matters.

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